If anyone is shocked by “Touch Me Not,” they’re not getting the point. In her long-gestating first feature, Adina Pintilie uses bodies of all types to explore the boundaries of intimacy and challenge notions of beauty, which clearly wouldn’t be possible without a significant display of naked flesh. Whether she’s achieved that goal, however, will very much depend on the individual, as “Touch” is a divisive film that aims to address more issues than it can persuasively handle. Seamlessly blending fiction with reality, Pintilie invents a story about an Englishwoman grappling with intimacy issues and weaves in real people guiding her toward being comfortable with her body and the bodies of others.
At its core, the film surprisingly succeeds in nudging audiences to reassess what is and isn’t attractive, but that’s because the personality of Christian Bayerlein, a man crippled with spinal muscular atrophy, brings the viewer beyond how we perceive beauty, allowing us not simply to overlook his deformity but to recognize physical elements that are empirically pleasing. The problem is that Pintilie wants us to make that leap even with people who are all surface, thereby failing to recognize the way character tempers perception. While undoubtedly brave, especially considering how the director puts herself in the film in a clear case of cinema as therapy, “Touch” will be a hard sell.
Pintilie’s background in experimental film is apparent from the way she plays with space and sound, using a nonlinear narrative to build her case. Adina (the director) is making a video essay about intimacy and uses Laura (Laura Benson), a woman in her 50s, as a sort of muse. Unable to allow herself physical pleasure, Laura hires a hustler who she watches as he showers and masturbates, but she’s incapable of joining him, reduced to sniffing the bedding after he’s left. She decides to engage transsexual sex worker-cum-therapist Hanna (Hanna Hoffman) who uses Brahms — and her own body — as a therapeutic route toward client satisfaction. Hanna’s sessions are more feminine and cerebral, whereas those with sex worker Seani Love take more physical form; he employs tactile stimulation, including punching, as a way of breaking down Laura’s resistance.
Interspersed with such scenes are those in a touch-yoga workshop, where Tómas (Tómas Lemarquis, “Noi Albinoi”) is paired with Christian (Bayerlein) and told to use his fingers to explore the disabled man’s face in order to “see his soul.” Both men have what would generically be called deformities: Tómas is completely hairless from alopecia universalis, and Christian, in addition to twisted limbs, has a malformed jaw, his top teeth jut out and he’s unable to control his drooling. Notwithstanding all this, he has a hyper-sexual relationship with his wife Grit (Grit Uhlemann).
Christian is the film’s heart, and when he discusses the parts of his body he likes, viewers look into his big blue eyes and see the beauty therein. In a similar way, Hanna’s warm confidence transcends her doughy figure: She becomes a compelling character not because she’s removed her clothes, but because she uses wit and humor (otherwise lacking in the film) to break down preconceived concepts of attraction. The same can’t be said for the denizens of the sex club Tómas enters (this ain’t no “Shortbus”), where people engage in various forms of kink that, without a connection to personality, look both unappealing and ridiculous.
Pintilie fumbles by grouping too many things together, as if intimacy and comfort with one’s body and those of others lead to practices on the far end of the sexual spectrum. Had she spent a bit of time with the woman whose bondage games look and sound rather painful, we might conclude that being tied up is actually a form of liberation, but without the intervention of personality, kink is merely performance, not intimacy. Perhaps the most serious flaw here is that almost everyone apart from Hanna is the sum of their physical rather than intellectual selves — they have no interiority outside of their naval-gazing.
Scenes of Laura’s stern-looking mute father in a hospital bed offer clues to her problems with being touched. But that’s simplified psychoanalysis, just as Christian saying the world is more complex than just good and bad is rather facile. Some viewers will be wont to make comparisons with Ulrich Seidl’s films, or Lars von Trier’s “Nymphomaniac” (Benson does have a Charlotte Gainsbourg vibe), yet Pintilie is the opposite of a misanthrope — she’s genuinely invested in opening the mind to the body’s sensations. Keeping it all balanced is where she gets bogged down.
Formally, the film uses bold constructs that blur the lines between fiction and nonfiction. Adina’s interviews with Laura transcend spatial possibility, and the fourth wall is continually broken by glimpses of camera equipment, or moments such as those when Christian looks at the camera, saying, “I think we have an audience.” Handsomely textured lensing accents stark whites that act as neutral, otherworldly backgrounds, making faces even more important. Audio tracks are occasionally deliberately off-synch, and a cacophony of noises periodically assaults the ears. An extended strobe sequence is quite unnecessary.